The Holocaust, 9/11, the Slave Trade and…Facebook? How Museums & Experts Fail at Social Media

As part of my EUROTAST postdoc I partnered with the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past and Marc Pallascio, a History MA student to conduct a survey of the online outreach of museums and institutions that commemorate so-called “dark” or difficult heritage. At the outset of my postdoc I wrote:

How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? (…) Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

This article attempts to address some of these questions through social media metrics and the online interactions of heritage institutions associated with difficult heritage: The Holocaust, 9/11, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, with a focus on the latter. Additionally, we looked into existing online communities surrounding difficult heritage that are independent of these larger institutions.

Spoilers: there was little-to-no interactivity between official institutions and online places where people chose to “remember together.” Social media was used by official institutions purely to broadcast, not to interact.

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Institutions and experts were also pretty scarce where there was the most interaction, debate and arguably a need for an informed opinion. It’s a complete cliche online, but we ventured where nobody dares to go: THE COMMENTS.

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These were on a YouTube series for Africans in America, on the “Little Dread” YouTube channel. Even when a link to a reputable source is posted, it is countered with a reference to the van Sertima pseudoscientific book “They Came Before Columbus.” More importantly, there are several online places and communities that are obviously taking up issues of heritage, race, and origins and these are overwhelmingly NOT in ready-made, sanctioned arenas for such discussions. As we state in the paper:

Authoritative voices are absent in non-specialist discussions of heritage online, as experts frame their conversations within official settings.

From the conclusions:

The distributed network of the internet would seem to be an ideal venue for discussions with and between members of the diaspora formed by the descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet, there is little connectivity apparent on either websites or social media between academics, heritage interpreters, and the online stakeholder communities…identifying where meaningful performative collective memory is exercised, then engaging with stakeholders on their own terms, may be more impactful than websites or campaigns of outward-facing social media.

Despite the 2015 publication date, the article has just been published by the Journal of African Diaspora and Heritage:

Morgan, C., & Pallascio, P. M. (2015). Digital Media, Participatory Culture, and Difficult Heritage: Online Remediation and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, 4(3), 260–278.

It’s also available as a pre-print on Academia:

https://www.academia.edu/24144509/Digital_Media_Participatory_Culture_and_Difficult_Heritage_Online_Remediation_and_the_Trans-Atlantic_Slave_Trade

 

Contested Stonehenge: Battle of the Beanfield

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Last term I guest-lectured in Sara Perry’s MA students course on Visualization, Ethics, and Dark Heritage. I was looking into sites of “dark” or difficult heritage–heritage that hurts–in the United Kingdom. Many do not realize that one of English Heritage’s most beloved monuments, Stonehenge, is one of those sites.

June 1st marks the 30 year anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; 500 ‘travellers’ were arrested and 200 vehicles impounded by a confrontational, violent police force who forbade their entry to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. In her excellent Stonehenge: Making Space, Barbara Bender talks about the contested landscape of Stonehenge, and the uneven power relations that surround the site.

There is very little acknowledgement of this violent suppression at the country’s foremost heritage site, though £23,000 was later awarded to plaintiffs in the case for ‘assault, damage to their vehicles and property, and for not being given the reasons for their arrest.’ When I last enquired, there is no mention of the Battle of the Beanfield in any of the Stonehenge interpretive material or at the site museum, and though people may enter the monument during the winter and summer solstices, it still remains deeply contested.

Who is Stonehenge for? When do conservation principles translate into brutality against vulnerable people? Can we stay open to alternative understandings of the landscape? Bender’s statement still rings true:

If this chapter is…somewhat polemic, that is because it was, in part, spawned in anger at the efforts of English Heritage and parts of the Establishment to promote a socially empty view of the past in line with modern conservative sensibilities.

I hope that more progressive forces within English Heritage can win out over this suppression of the contemporary heritage of Stonehenge, but in the current political climate, with vast cuts to heritage spending, that may be a big ask.